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Opinion How an attempted Canadian concession to China backfired

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, alongside his country’s defense minister, Harjit Sajjan, in Brussels in July 2018.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, alongside his country’s defense minister, Harjit Sajjan, in Brussels in July 2018. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When the Halifax International Security Forum awards its top 2020 prize to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen later this month, the Chinese government’s effort to thwart that plan will have failed — along with the Canadian Defense Ministry’s regrettable alleged attempts to do Beijing’s bidding. The lesson is that compromising one’s values through self-censorship is exactly the wrong way to deal with China’s bullying.

The Halifax Forum, an annual conference of officials and experts from democratic countries, had planned to announce it was giving Tsai the John McCain Prize for Leadership in Public Service during the forum’s virtual event in November. But those plans were scrapped at the last minute when Canadian Defense Ministry officials threatened to pull Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan from participating in the forum, as well as cancel its funding for the event if the Tsai announcement was made, several sources involved in the discussions told me. During the forum, there was no mention of the award.

This week’s disclosure of the defense ministry’s ultimatum by Politico sparked a scandal in Canadian politics. During testimony to a Canadian parliamentary committee, Sajjan called the report “absolutely false,” saying that the forum is independent and free to choose its own awardees. But multiple sources directly involved told me that the ultimatum was delivered directly during a Nov. 9 phone call between Deputy Defense Minister Jody Thomas and Halifax Forum President Peter Van Praagh. Thomas said that if the Tsai award went forward, Sajjan would not participate and the funding relationship would be dissolved, the sources said. (A ministry spokesman confirmed the call but denied any threats or ultimatums were made and said the event was fully funded.) Thomas referenced ongoing negotiations between Ottawa and Beijing over the “two Mikes” as a reason for not upsetting Beijing, the sources said.

China has been holding hostage Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have spent more than two years in prison. Beijing is trying to trade them for Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, who is under house arrest in Vancouver while she fights extradition to the United States.

What does the taking of two Canadian citizens as hostages have to do with Taiwan? In reality, nothing. The linkage only exists because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is using the issue to try to get concessions from Canada on any and every issue it feels insecure about — and the list is long. The Chinese embassy directly pressured the Canadian government to thwart the forum’s plan to honor Tsai even after the conference, sources said.

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But the forum organizers never had any plans to change their decision to honor Tsai, which had been approved by Cindy McCain, the late senator’s widow, who sits on the forum’s board, and communicated to the Taiwanese government.

“We were always going to give this award to President Tsai. We are giving it to Tsai. We are not wavering from that,” one Halifax official told me. “If Halifax is not independent, its value is lost, it just becomes another government entity. So when we were told with an ultimatum we couldn’t do our work, we always knew we were going to do our work, and we were just figuring out how we were going to do it.”

After the news broke of the threat, opposition Conservative lawmakers in Ottawa pounced. “The government’s attempt to silence those critical of China is shameful, and it plays right into China’s desire to silence its critics abroad,” Conservative lawmaker Michael Chong told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday. Trudeau pledged the Canadian defense minister would continue to support the forum, clarifying Sajjan’s suggestion he might not approve the funding for the upcoming event.

To underscore their outrage, the House of Commons passed a resolution calling the Taiwanese president an ideal candidate for the McCain prize and calling on the Liberal government to continue funding the Halifax Forum even after it honors Tsai.

It’s very common for the CCP to use whatever leverage it has over a government to try to link all the other issues it deems sensitive. The Canadian government’s fundamental mistake was to go along with that linkage. But by letting the negotiations over the two Mikes constrain it on Taiwan, Ottawa was not only rewarding the hostage-taking but also giving Beijing an incentive to never let the two Canadian citizens go free because the Chinese are getting so many interim benefits from the situation.

Perhaps the Canadian defense ministry honestly believed that upsetting Beijing with a provocative move such as this would be counterproductive. But that that’s the wrong way to think about it. We can’t tell our citizens to censor themselves because it might offend China’s delicate and paranoid sensibilities. That is a recipe for losing our integrity and undermining a system in which our independent institutions are actually independent.

The good news is that the award will be presented after all — and this year’s Halifax Forum will preserve the notion that democracies should champion open debate about fundamental issues rather than suppressing it. Sajjan didn’t mention China during his own speech at the 2020 Halifax Forum, but in it he did refer to the bad actors around the world who are constantly trying to undermine our system and get us to ignore their malign activities.

“They attempt to gain advantage across multiple domains by eroding our unity and exhausting our resolve,” he said. “The best way forward is for countries that share the same values to work together.” Amen.

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